Raheef Rasheed Aowal
Seven years of family life had taught Sofiqul Saikia that purchasing groceries quarterly in a month was effectively soft on the pocket. He heaved the ‘bozar kora Muna’ (shopping bag) from the backseat of the Fiat Padmini and picked the Rou fish in double black polythene bags from the floor, lest the seats get bloodied. On his way to the front door, he stopped briefly to inspect the roses where every morning he dumped the leftover boiled tea leaves to fertilize the soil. The grass on either side of the walkway was recently trimmed, not by a lawnmower but by letting cows in the lawn for a day.
Junaid, his 6-year-old son in a blue t-shirt and green shorts, opened the door. He ruffled his hair as he passed by.
Woof! Woof! Howhowhowooooo….
It was the ritual for a year now. Snowy, the Saikia’s Lasha Apso pranced around the feet in frenzy when Sofiqul returned home from the office at 5.30 p.m. The stop cork to this madness was rushing to the biscuit cabinet and rewarding the dog with a rusk biscuit.
Leaving the vegetables on the kitchen slab and the fish near the sink, he headed for the bedroom. Tahseena, his wife, in a green sleeveless nighty was seated on the bed with a tweezer and a compact mirror, plucking stray hair near her lips. Seeing him enter she got up.
“Saah bonau? Should I make tea? Bozaar anila? Did you get the groceries? We do not have either fish or meat in the fridge. Do not complain later.” she collected her wavy hair and clutched it into place.
“Sob anilu. I got everything. There is singara and lal mohan (gulab jamun) from Sweet India to have with tea too.” he unbuttoned his shirt and grabbed to towel for his after-work bath.
Tahseena’s face lit up. She lived for all things sugary. Sofiqul uncovered this way to her heart when their marriage was arranged and they met in a restaurant named Rangeela in Jorhat, her home town. Her inability to hide her apparent happiness when Tutti- Fruiti ice-cream arrived, followed by a bout of coyness was enough to seal the deal that eventful day with Sofiqul.
“That’s convenient. I attend gym classes at Diana Beauty Clinic and you manage to ruin the efforts effortlessly.” she retorted with a breezy smile on her lips.
“I shall do everything I can to make sure you don’t revert back to the underfed Tahseena your parents entrusted me with. I like meat so you should be meaty too.” he laughed and closed the bathroom door behind him.
“Go and wash your face and bring your books.” She called Junaid for his evening study session and the words drifted faintly into the bathroom where a rusty shower spluttered to life. Sofiqul furiously rubbed the bar of Liril soap over his skin.
Junaid desperately hoped that his parents got into one of those grown-up conversations where they talked about how the project director scolded his father for signing something; how Mrs Phukan, their neighbour was not talking with her husband because a woman called on their landline asking for him; how they should start planning for the summer vacations; what Putoli Jethai(aunt) had to say about the girl they were enquiring for marriage to her brother; how they should go to the newly opened Vadilal Ice cream parlour in the Supermarket. Such discussions often gave him the 15-20 minute window where he could finish watching his ‘Disney Hour’ which ended at 7 pm. However, the bugle had sounded and he hurried to the dining table, under a bell-shaped hanging incandescent lamp, with his school bag.
Sofiqul wiped himself dry, slipped on a faded blue polo t-shirt and his pyjamas. His wife had laid the tea and snacks on the table and was going through her son’s schoolwork. Junaid had an opened up singara, a fried savoury, on his plate and proceeded mix it all with the sweet tamarind chutney. He took a bite and the sudden spice rush overwhelmed his delicate taste buds. He blew furiously into the steaming mug of Horlicks so that he could gulp the hotness down.
“Lahe lahe. Khuwa bostu khini polai nejai. Eat slowly champ. The food doesn’t have legs to run away.” Sofiqul sipped his cup of tea made of leaves from Hatibagan Tea Estate where Nilomoni his school friend was a manager.
“Tumi eyak Maths tu sai diba na. Please help him with his maths. I teach him everything I can manage.” Tahseena handed him the answer script of the recent maths test and looked menacingly at Junaid with a shaking finger. “Khali cartoon sabo. If you watch too much cartoon you become one yourself.”
“Thike ase. It alright he scored 22 out of 25.”
“Don’t play the good cop every time. I know you, trying to gain the son’s brownie points when I am the one sitting on this table slogging and studying along with him.” She cut in crossly.
Junaid sprung out of his chair to answer the door. His mother grabbed his vest and pulled him back, slapping his hand. “Toi Porh..Study!”
Sofiqul took the last sip and popped a gulab jamun whole, into his mouth and went to unlatch the door.
“Sir, bhalne? How have you been?”
A gang of four stood at the doorway, huddled close, with intent to enter. Sofiqul recognized the addresser as Lachit Baruah, a grade B contractor. He had tendered much work for the Public Health Department, Tinsukia where Sofiqul worked as an Executive Engineer.
“Asu bhalei. Aha aha bhitorole aha. Everything is good. Come in. Come in.” he ushered the group inside.
After they were seated Sofiqul noticed the somewhat frail disposition of two youth accompanying Lachit. It was evident from their tattered clothes that they were villagers who had fallen on hard times. The third member was a bit elder, around the mid-30s, wore a camouflage print trouser and a bomber jacket. Through his bearded demeanour, his eyes spoke of untold sufferings it had seen. Cold.
“Kuwa keneke aha hol? So what brings you here?” Sofiqul kept his arms on his knees and leaned in with interest.
“Sir, aiya Noren aru Dimbeshwar. Amar Sadiyatei ghor. From Sadiya.” He introduced Noren and Dimbeswar, the two dishevelled youths. “Aru aiya Khagen Kokaideo. This is my elder cousin brother Khagen.” Khagen leaned forward and shook Sofiqul’s hand without letting the blank expression leave his face. He felt uneasy.
“Sir, Khagen da works in a prime organization which works for the social good…” Lachit hesitantly began.
“Sir apunak andharot nerakhu. I shall not keep you in the darkness. I am a recruiter of an organization that is quite active in these parts. The newspapers and their imbecilic journalists make have not made lives easier for us, splashing whatever they want across as headlines. Look at their faces sir. This is a mirror which reflects the amount of importance this government gives us. Why should they work for these corrupt swine? Their blood and sweat shall reward their mother freedom. Our concern can give worth to their lives.” He looked around with pride and vigour. He believed in each word he said.
“Where? In the forests of Myanmar?” Sofiqul quipped and Khagen glared at him.
“Hunisa…. Olop aha sun. Can you hear me? Come inside once.” Tahseena’s voice waded into the room from behind the curtain.
“Olop bohok sun.” Sofiqul excused himself and headed inside.
“Kun ahise? Who are these people? I told you not to bring your work home. Junaid has exams next week. Kiyo siyor bakhor korise. Why are they speaking in raised voices?” Tahseena looked irritated.
“Ugrobondi. They are insurgents.” Sofiqul spoke without a quiver in his voice. Tahnseena’s blood spontaneously drained from her face. “Go and make tea for our interesting guests. It will calm your nerves.”
“Ki.. hobo etiya? What will happen now?…” her voice failed her and gave way to the tension exponentially rising within her.
Sofiqul grabbed her shoulders, looked her in the eyes, strengthened his grip and gave her a warm reassuring smile “They will be more docile once they taste your world famous brew with ginger and lemon. You worry about that for now.”
She headed inside still dazed and Sofiqul went back to the drawing room.
“Apunak oxubidha olop diya hobo. We might cause a bit of an inconvenience for you and your family. It would be a tremendous help if Noren and Dimbeshwar can have a roof for the night.” Khagen declared respectfully. “They shall leave early morning. Olop bhat khuwai dibo. Just give them a meal of rice and lentils. It will be enough.”
Sofiqul looked at Lachit. He couldn’t bear to lock eyes with his ‘engineer sir’. His shame, for creating such a scenario that evening, would scar him for life.
“I have never turned down bluntly any demands made. You can be rest assured I can detect disguised demands of cycles and rice paddy for labourers. I know they live nearby and that they don’t need cycles nor are they Assamese to have rice, they usually have flour. In spite of my knowledge I have never refrained from helping in the interests of the organization.” Sofiqul stated with a firm decisive voice.
“Mr Saikia, bhabi sai lobo. Apunak bhalkei hudisu. Please think it over carefully. We are asking you very humbly.” Khagen opened the zipper of his bomber jacket and parted the folds. The glint of a black loaded Colt caught Sofiqul’s eye and his stomach lurched. “Apuni buja nai. I think you do not understand.”
The curtains swayed and in rushed Juniad. “Abbu, Abbu… how do I solve this? Ammi told to ask you.”
Khagen immediately sat upright in an effort to hide his gun from the 6-year-old but he was a second too late. Junaid’s eye widened in wonder. “Uncle apunar pistol neki? Uncle, is that your gun? I also have one. It is not as good as yours. Abbu I want an iron gun like this.” He pointed at the loaded colt.
“Moi tumak ani dim dei next time. Tumi bhalke porhile. I shall get you one if you study well.” Lachit smiled and eased the atmosphere saturated with emotions. “Aijon Uncle armyt judho kore, tumiu dangor hoi army officer hoba tetiya tumiu paba. Khagen Uncle here fights in an army, when you grow up and join the army, you shall get one too.”
Khagen glanced at Lachit and then the kid, his mind trying to comprehend the futuristic scene, when this small child might get enrolled in the Indian army and hunt for insurgents like him. Sofiqul glared at Lachit for his brashness. He looked at Juniad and said “Go inside. Take a break. Watch the cartoon network.”Juniad beamed and ran inside.
“Saok mur aitu ghor hoi. I have a family which makes this house a home. I cannot and will not risk their future for yours.”Sofiqul rubbed his sweaty palms.
Khagen paused for some seconds and stood up. Others followed suit.
“Bohut bhal lagil apunak log pai. It was a pleasure meeting you. You are a good man. If we had more men like you we needn’t be doing what we are now. Ahisu.” The file left in the same fashion they came. Sofiqul waited for them to board the green Maruti Van they came in and then bolted the door. He went in and hugged his beautiful wife and curious son.
The next morning Sofiqul leaned down and hooked the chain onto Snowy’s collar to take him for his morning walks. Thump! The newspaper landed at his feet. It read
“Top recruiter of the insurgents Khagen and three new recruits, Noren, Dimbeswar and Lachit shot in an encounter yesterday night near Chabua.”
Raheef Rasheed Aowol is a small- town entrepreuner based in North Lakhimpur with a penchant for short stories. He is an MS degree holder from Bauhaus University,Weimar, Germany in Structural Engineering. His articles have been featured in North East Today Magazine.